How to identify the UK’s most common butterfly species - Earthwatch
Peacock butterfly

How to identify the UK’s most common butterfly species

What would nature be without the beauty of butterflies? We have 59 species of butterflies in the UK with two species being migrants. They are a vital part of our natural ecosystem. Read on to discover the importance of butterflies, the threats they face and some tips on identifying the UK’s most common butterfly species.

Why are butterflies important?

Butterflies are pollinators. Pollination is where pollen is transferred from the male part of a flower (stamen), to the female part (stigma), of either the same or a different flower. This is how plants are fertilised so they can create fruits and seeds for reproduction. Most of our food crops rely on pollination.

Butterflies drink nectar from flowers using a long tongue called aproboscis.When they do this, pollen sticks to their legs and bodies. When they visit another flower, the pollenisdeposited resulting in pollination.

Butterflies are also indicators of a healthy environment and healthy ecosystems. They help scientists understand how nature is doing and the impacts of climate change.

Many other species of wildlife depend on butterflies too. They are prey for birds, bats and other insectivorous animals, both as adults and as caterpillars. Caterpillars are a vital food source for many bird chicks in spring such as blue tits and house sparrows.

Why do butterflies need our help?

The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2022 report found that 80% of butterfly species in the UK have decreased in either abundance, distribution, or both since 1976. Some of our most common butterflies’ numbers were down in last year’s Big Butterfly Count including small tortoiseshell and ringlet.

They are threatened by climate change, habitat loss and pesticides. Without our help, numbers of butterflies will continue to fall.

But together we can make a difference for our butterflies. All they need is a helping hand. Research shows that targeted conservation efforts are helping our wildlife. By planting Tiny Forests across the UK, we are providing habitats for butterflies and other wildlife to thrive in urban spaces.

Help us track how Tiny Forests are supporting butterflies by joining the Tiny Forest Wildlife Count this May.

Identify our most common butterfly species

Here are some of the most common butterfly species. They are also the species we monitor in Tiny Forests.

Orange-tip

Orange-tip butterfly

Photo credit: Leah Pink

Orange-tips are medium-sized and can be found in gardens and hedgerows.

The males are white with bright orange wingtips. The females are white with black wingtips. Both have mottled green underwings.

Brimstone

Photo credit: David Duarte Crespo on Unsplash

The brimstone’s wings are angular and leaf like.

The wings of the female are pale green, almost white, whilst males have yellow-green underwings and yellow upper wings.

Large white

Photo credit: Jamal Kabir

They are large butterflies and strong flyers.

Their pure white wings have black tips to the forewings, extending down the wing edge. Females have two spots on the forewings. Their undersides are a cream colour with two spots.

Small White

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

Similar to the large white but smaller in size with smaller black tips on the forewings and one or two wing spots. Their undersides are a cream colour.

Green-veined White

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

Similar to the small white but with prominent green veins on the hind wing. The upper wings have one or more spots.

Small Tortoiseshell

Photo credit: Arvid Høidahl on Unsplash

The small tortoiseshell is widespread throughout the UK, commonly found in gardens. It is easy to identify, with its stunning black, yellow and orange wings framed by blue dots on the wing edges.

Painted Lady

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

Slightly similar to the small tortoiseshell, they are larger and paler without any blue. The painted lady is a long-distance migrant, some years we get large numbers arriving across the UK.

Peacock

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

The peacock’s characteristic eyespots make it easy to recognise. Undersides of the wings are dark and resemble dead leaves. Quite a large butterfly and a strong flyer.

Red Admiral

Photo credit: Jane Scott

The red admiral is a large and strong-flying butterfly common in gardens. Their wings are mostly black with distinctive red/orange stripes across the forewings and at the bottom of their hindwings. They have white spots at the tips of the forewings.

Comma

Comma butterfly

Photo credit: Jane Scott

A bright orange butterfly with black spots and unique scalloped edges to their wings. When the wings are shut, they are brown and resemble dead leaves.

On their underwing you can also see the white comma shape that they are named after.

Common Blue

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

The common blue is the most widespread blue butterfly in the UK and is found in grassy places.

The male is bright blue with less black on the wings than other blue butterfly species. The females are less colourful, with wing colours ranging from blue to brown with orange spots.

Skippers

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

There are several species of skipper butterfly. They can be identified by their distinctive wings. Skippers hold their forewings angled above the hind wings. They appear to have a more triangular shape than other butterflies.

The small skipper is the most common, with bright orange-brown wings. They live in grassy areas.

Speckled Wood

Photo credit: Nathan Benstead

Speckled wood butterflies are a common sight in woodland, gardens and hedgerows. They are chocolate brown with pale yellow speckles and some black rings on the wing edges.

Meadow Brown

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

The meadow brown is one of our most abundant butterflies and easy to see. Sometimes hundreds can be seen together! They are brown with orange patches that vary in size and shape with black rings.

Ringlet

Photo credit: Josh Kubale

The ringlet is a dark brown butterfly, similar to the male meadow brown but without the orange.

They have small circles on the underwings which vary in number, size and shape. Sometimes they are just white spots without the black ring.

Gatekeeper

Photo credit: Arvid Høidahl on Unsplash

Similar to the meadow brown, the gatekeeper is brown with distinct orange patches and two black dots, one on each wing. The patches can vary in size and shape.

They are often seen together with the meadow brown and ringlet.

Count butterflies at Tiny Forests this May!

The Tiny Forest Wildlife Count is taking place 18-26 May 2024. The count is a simple wildlife survey across the 200+ Tiny Forests in the UK. We’re calling on everyone to get involved and help track how their local Tiny Forest is supporting wildlife.

Did you know that counting butterflies reduces anxiety? And just 15 minutes spent observing and counting butterflies can boost feeling of connectedness with nature. That’s how long it takes to do our Butterfly Timed Count!

Taking part in the Tiny Forest Wildlife Count will help you connect with nature and boost your wellbeing.

By measuring the species of butterflies living in the Tiny Forest, you will help us understand how Tiny Forests are supporting urban spaces. This data will help us bring the benefits to more communities, helping both people and wildlife thrive together.

Join in the fun this May and count the butterflies at your local Tiny Forest!

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